US Secretary of State John Kerry has set a deadline for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach a framework agreement that would guide talks on a final peace accord.
In Jerusalem yesterday, Mr Kerry said he decided a deadline was necessary to determine whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and their negotiating teams will make the "tough choices" needed to bring talks to a successful conclusion. He declined to disclose the date.
The framework would offer an agreed vision of what peace would look like and address all issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr Kerry, on his 10th visit to the region, also told them they have to be more proactive because he can't maintain his recent pace of visiting the region every two weeks, a US official, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private, said.
He was more direct than in the past about wrapping up the framework accord now, if possible, so the teams can move toward his goal of reaching a final deal within months, the official said.
"I have a deadline in mind," Mr Kerry said at a news conference.
One of the first major benchmarks for Mr Kerry's effort is getting Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas to meet by mid-February, said two administration officials briefed regularly on his mission.
If Mr Kerry does succeed in making progress toward a framework agreement, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas may meet in late January or early next month, according to a Palestinian official who spoke on condition on anonymity. It would be the first time they met since September 2010.
Setting a deadline is a risky gambit for Mr Kerry, because Israelis or Palestinians may try to run out his clock while ducking blame if the talks fail.
Previously, US officials have expressed the view that a deadline might put more pressure on Mr Kerry than on the opposing parties. US officials said the deadline may have some flexibility to avoid such a pitfall.
Mr Kerry expressed optimism yesterday that he can reach a breakthrough despite the "high level of mistrust" between the two sides as they approach the prospect of resolving their conflict by establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
"I know that there are those out there who, on both sides, question whether peace is possible," Mr Kerry told journalists in Jerusalem. "But it is clear to me that we can work to bridge the remaining gaps that do exist."
He spoke after 12 hours of weekend meetings with Mr Netanyahu and eight hours with Mr Abbas. The talks are expected to resume today, after Mr Kerry flew yesterday to meet with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh.